Over the years, companies have used employee stock option schemes (ESOP Schemes) as an effective method to align employee interests with shareholders, reward their efforts, increase their loyalty towards the company and motivate employees to perform better.
An initial public offering (IPO) and consequent listing of equity shares is one of the critical ways in which employees seek value appreciation in stock options and equity shares held by them. Accordingly, unlisted companies typically align timing of exercise of options under ESOP Schemes with their plans to undertake an IPO.
The Securities and Exchange Board of India (Issue of Capital and Disclosure Requirements) Regulations, 2009, as amended (SEBI ICDR Regulations), which regulates IPOs, provides exceptions for ESOPs from certain eligibility conditions to be fulfilled by the issuer undertaking the IPO as well as transfer restrictions on equity shares applicable after the completion of the IPO.
However, issuers have faced challenges in the past with respect to eligibility conditions if the options have remained outstanding with individuals who have ceased to be an employee of the issuer.
Further, issuers are being increasingly questioned by such former employees, who continue to hold shares in the issuer but are not offered lock-in exemptions available to existing employees. Additional basis to these concerns is that former employees are treated beneficially under the Securities and Exchange Board of India (Share Based Employee Benefits) Regulations, 2014 (ESOP Regulations) and the Companies Act, 2013 and similar benefits have not been recognised under the SEBI ICDR Regulations.